Benedict Cumberbatch is known for playing weird and strange characters. Since he broke out as the titular Sherlock in the BBC's modern update from Steven Moffat, he's often found himself cast in lead roles, but rarely as a "the straight man." His characters are often kooky (like Dr. Stephen Strange in Doctor Strange) when they're not outright diagnosed with some sort of mental disorder (like his turn as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game). In this BBC adaptation from last fall, Cumberbatch takes advantage of these expectations to thwart them and play a completely normal character, or at least as normal as Cumberbatch ever gets.
The story revolves around the disappearance of four-year-old Katie, the daughter of Stephen and Julie Lewis. Stephen had her with him at the supermarket, he turned his back for a second, and boom, she's gone. The scenes that follow, making up about the first ten to fifteen minutes of the story, are probably the hardest to sit through, as Cumberbatch and Kelly Macdonald, who plays Julie, deal with the trauma of the unthinkable, that their daughter is gone and will never ever turn up again alive. Cumberbatch retreats into the "stiff upper lip" of British stereotype fame, while McDonald explodes her grief from end to end loudly and frightening enough for the both of them. Neither reaction can change the reality they face. Their child is gone.
If this were the only story being told, it might not be able to sustain a full 90 minutes, but it would be for the better. When the series focuses on Cumberbatch's grief as Stephen, and McDonald's collapse as Julie, there is nothing more riveting that PBS has done so far this year. If it had chosen to lean into the part of the book where grief and space and time and quantum physics meet in a weird yet slightly Doctor Who-esque manner, the series would have also probably done for the better. After all, Cumberbatch may not have been in Doctor Who directly, but his work with Moffat and as Dr. Strange would have led him towards this path. But then again, considering how eager Cumberbatch feels at times to play something other than the expected, that's why the adaptation decided to cut those bits out.
Instead, the series focuses on the politics of children. Lewis, you see, is a celebrity, a famous author of children's books, and his daughter's disappearance is national news, bringing in politics at a time when no family should have to deal with politicians. The original novel was written in 1987, so the concept was a Thatcherite government. The subplot, therefore, gave author Ian McEwan a reason to rail against the conservative direction the country was going and the excesses of the era. For with the story updated for modern times, our politicians get updated too, into a more Tony Blair-David Cameron composite, which just doesn't have quite the same stuffing to rage at. This is a book that was more caustic social satire than it was supposed to be domestic drama. But the best parts here invert that intent completely.
Despite the mushiness of the subplot, and Stephen Campbell Moore's turn as Stephen's best mate, plagued with a breakdown of his own, the reason to tune in and watch this series is the pairing of Cumberbatch and McDonald, hands down. Cumberbatch especially has quite the number to do, with many assuming that this sort of part isn't in his wheelhouse. Not only does he dispell that myth, but proves that perhaps there should be more to his career than deerhat props and capes that walk themselves to the coatrack. Watching him pick up the pieces and slowly rebuild with the devastated Julie is worth every minute, and probably several more than we get. By the time the story draws to a close, with closure for both characters, we're rooting for them to make it in the new chapter opening in their lives.
The Child In Time premieres on PBS Masterpiece on Sunday, April 1, 2018, at 9 p.m. ET.